As 2023 comes to a close, one of the most powerful local offices in the country is at stake.
On Saturday, Houston voters will decide the next mayor of the nation’s fourth-largest city. The election hasn’t received much media attention outside of Texas, but it’s worth paying attention to. The elections are not only the latest example of the progressive versus centrist divide that has defined others mayor and congressional races in recent yearsBut voters are also electing a powerful politician.
“The mayor runs the city, period,” said former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “We have a very strong form of government where the mayor dominates.”
The primary election for this nonpartisan seat was held in November, but no candidate surpassed 50 percent, prompting a runoff between the top two vote-getters, both Democrats: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who has represented to Houston in Congress since 1995. and State Senator John Whitmire, who has been in the state legislature since 1973.
Both candidates have emphasized their experience working with stakeholders of diverse competing interests to deliver results for Houstonians. But Jackson Lee has highlighted his record in Congress and his ties to national Democrats, which makes sense in a city that voted for President Joe Biden. 65 percent to 33 percent in 2020. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton He personally campaigned for Jackson Lee. in Houston, and former President Bill Clinton endorsed her last week. Jackson Lee also has the endorsement of outgoing Mayor Sylvester Turner, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“The congresswoman has presented herself as a staunch Democrat who has known how to pull the levers of power in Washington and put money back into the area and take care of her constituents, and it’s very visible,” Emmett said. “And all her attention has been focused on that, on … the solid Democratic base.”
That said, Whitmire is also a lifelong Democrat, Emmett added, with the endorsement of Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia and several Democratic members of the state legislature. But Whitmire is clearly the most centrist candidate in the race, running as a tough-on-crime pragmatist who worked across party lines in the GOP-dominated Texas Senate. Protect and Serve PAC, which supports Whitmire, has campaigned against Jackson Lee by linking her to the movement to defund the police, including sending her emails accusing her of working with Rep. Ilhan Omar. (Jackson Lee, for her part, has spent much of the campaign reiterating her track record of providing additional funding to local police and her plans to take advantage of federal funds invest in anti-crime initiatives).
Whitmire also has a huge financial advantage. Jackson Lee spent $341,000 between October 29 and November 29 and entered the final stretch of the campaign with only $235,000 available. Meanwhile, Whitmire reported spending nearly $3 million between Oct. 29 and Nov. 29, and Protect and Save PAC has spent more than $500,000 in the same period. Whitmire also reported that he had $3 million in the bank, which could go far in the final week of the election.
With two politicians who have spent, combined, more than 80 years in elected office, both candidates in the race have had their share of bad press. For Jackson Lee, one of the biggest challenges has been overcoming news of alleged mistreatment of his staff. The Houston Chronicle examined Legistorm’s records spanning the past two decades and found that, excluding temporary workers, its staff tended to stay less than eight months on average, Highest turnover rate among members of the Texas House of Representatives and one of the highest turnover rates in Congress. The Chronicle also investigated Whitmire’s work as a lawyer. and found numerous examples in which the state senator “blurs the lines between his public and private duties.” And there are many other examples of his long careers in public service that became campaign material for the mayoral race. For example, Whitmire previously expressed his opposition to legal abortion (in 1972, according to a deep dive through the Chronicle.
Texas politicians largely agree that Whitmire has the advantage heading into Election Day. He received 43 percent of the primary vote, while Jackson Lee received only 36 percent. And the only public poll of the raceconducted Nov. 13-18 by SurveyUSA and sponsored by the University of Houston, found that little has changed: Whitmire was leading 42 to 35 percent among likely voters.
Much of Whitmire’s competitive advantage stems from the fact that, while both candidates are Democrats, the election is not a Democratic primary. Republicans and independents will also vote on December 9. “Jackson Lee has no path to victory,” said Chris Tomlinson, a columnist for the Hearst newspaper in Texas. “Whitmire is splitting the Democratic vote and winning the Republican vote and most of the independent vote.”
In fact, while Jackson Lee led the SurveyUSA poll among Democratic voters, 55 percent to 25 percent, Whitmire led among independent voters 46 percent to 26 percent, and Republicans supported Whitmire over Jackson Lee 68 percent. to 12 percent. “He’s always been a conservative Democrat,” Tomlinson said of Whitmire. “And for him, running as a conservative Democrat is a sure path to victory.”
Jackson Lee’s real support base appears to be black voters. According to the SurveyUSA poll, black voters favored her over Whitmire by 63 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, white voters supported Whitmire by a very similar margin: 63 percent to 20 percent.
But while blacks (23 percent) and whites (24 percent) represent a similar proportion of The population of Houston, a plurality (45 percent) of the city’s population is Latino, and it is these voters who could put Whitmire over the top. Hispanic voters surveyed by SurveyUSA supported Whitmire over Jackson Lee, 43 percent to 23 percent.
However, public polls on the race have been scarce, and drawing sweeping conclusions from crosstabs can be a difficult task. Therefore, a surprise victory for Jackson Lee cannot be ruled out. His path to victory likely depends on a low-turnout election in which Black and Democratic voters who know and support the congresswoman are more motivated to vote than Whitmire supporters. But early voting, which ended Tuesday, doesn’t look promising, which means Election Day voting will be key. “It’s going to be a challenge to get people to vote,” acknowledged Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, who is backing Jackson Lee. “We agree that this race will be won on the ground. His opponent has millions of dollars and has spent millions of dollars in this race.”
Anderson said one of the challenges is reminding voters that even though they already voted for mayor in November, they have to do it again in the runoff.
“We’re optimistic,” Anderson said. “It’s just that we have to make sure our voters vote.”
Cooper Burton contributed to the research.